Women in Documentary Films, and The Challenges They Face

We have seen more women from Asia taking a part in contributing in diversifying, expanding documentary films. Thanks to them, we have more balanced and diversified stories than ever.

In the era where opportunities are made available for filmmakers of various genders and nationalities to join global film industry, what have been the stories of Asian female documentary filmmakers? What challenges do they face, and how do they overcome it? How do they recognize their parts in comparison to their male peers?

We talked to several Asian female filmmakers to hear about their stories. These aspiring women share their thoughts, personal experiences and excitements in directing and producing documentary film.

 

GENDER AS PRIVILEGE

For Fanny Chotimah, the Director Film You & I, being a woman can be of benefit. In presenting the story about trauma, and how individual trauma is a part of collective trauma, Fanny thinks that her gender enables her to connect and communicate with her protagonist in a more intimate level.

However, just like any other profession, she admits that the biggest challege to filming stories is due to her duty in playing multiple roles in life.

“The real challenges for me are dealing with time management on domestic duties, as a mother and to pursuit my personal dreams making films that can be enjoyed by wider audience, since directing is a new thing for me and I am still learning.”

Similar thing is expressed by Linda Nursanti, director and producer of Lakardowo Mencara Keadilan (Lakardowo Seeks for Justice) and The Ant and The Elephant. Linda started to see her film as project where she can share the knowledge captured in her film for the collective benefits.

“The challenge in producing the film is establishing more intimate connections with the subject and develop my mentality as a filmmaker to recognize what problems lie in the field.”

She aims to provide safe space for her protagonist to make the subject comfortable to share story to her.

“It was challenging to encourage the subject to be more open, but after gaining that confidence, we can establish more intimate connections. Seeing the problems in Lakardowo really made me stress because I was too sad to see the condition in there, therefore I must give distance to see the problems clearly.”

 

ELIMINATING GENDER BIAS

Fan Wu’s story producing a film with male protagonist has been a reflexive experience by itself. Since she filmed a fishing community with traditional patriarchal gender roles (men go out fishing and women take care of the domestic life), she and her team realized that it was very easy to miss the scenes, because those scenes seemed not as heroic and “dramatic” as men returning from the sea with giant tuna. They just realized about it in the editing room.

“We really take a moment to reflect on why we have such hierarchy in mind (and to unlearn it). Finally we slowly bring back female characters, and give even more space for the household life that was usually invisible in the cinema — things that were normally seen as banal and insignificant. And much of this process is of course made by editor Anna who has very critical eyes on gender politics.”

According to her, it is this bias of the stereotypes/rules/boundaries of femininity that must be challenged in filmmaking and storytelling.

“I realize that film markets intended to categorize films and its authors — which is understandable because it’s an industry and a business. But I think essentially what I love about cinema is its capacity to open up imaginations and understandings towards others. So I would like to stay resistant and it’s not so easy. And I must say I am also super happy to know that I have both male and female comrades for such a challenge.”

 

SEEKING MORE FUNDING OPPORTUNITIES

According to Heni Matalalang, the director of film Denok & Gareng, the hardest challenges for her was to seek for funding and assemble crew and producer.

“Funding for creative documentary films is limited and competitive. Mostly come from TV industry in a form of commissioning work, with different vision than filmmakers. Finding crew, especially the loyal ones, to produce documentary film with years of shooting process can be difficult, and there isn’t much producer that understand about documentary film.”

 

BRINGING MORE DIVERSITY IN WORKING ENVIRONMENT

For so long, documentary film is often associated to men than women. This has caused the persistance of male domination in the film set, making women often find themselves as a target of discrimination and harrasment of their male peers.

This is also the case for Riani Singgih, filmmaker of Sonorous Melody. As a woman in the film industry, she often found myself surrounded by men.

“Like many others, I also have went through cases of sexual harassment that was brushed upon when working on set. What I’ve learned from all these experiences is that we as women have to support each other in bringing more diversity in our working environment.

There were many times where she was questioned for the choices she made. But she claims she has been lucky to have found groups of other women filmmakers who have been supportive to one another, no matter their experience in the industry itself.

“By including more women in the creation of our films, we will help more women to voice their own stories, sharing our experiences for others to know.”

TO MAKE OWN LIFE CHOICES

As a filmmaker who wears hijab, it is hard for Sarah to gain recognition from the society. She realizes that people still associate the choice to dress or personal attribute to the person’s occupation and often thought that the work she chose “makes” her does not represent the nature of a woman. She often question myself, “what exactly is the nature of a woman?”

“There are many things that people should not meddle with, but they give their opinions regardless. That is my challenge in creating fiction or documentary.”

She realizes that the question enhances her self-awareness and gives her full strength to her choice of work.

“That the true nature of a woman is to know what she wants and can make her own life choices”.

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